Since there is nothing so well worth having as friends, never lose a chance to make them ~ Francesco Guicciadini
When I travel it’s easy to meet new people, to strike up a conversation out of the blue and learn about someone’s life in a way that’s not about being polite before talking business. I’m not sure why it’s more difficult at home. Perhaps here I am more mentally insulated: I have my friends, my work, I have my habits. It may be that in New York City my guard is up whereas when I travel, for better or for worse, I’m pretty much come one come all. But not last week, for some reason 3.5 miles from home, the magic of travel inspired me.
Meet Fred Price: farmer, baker, photographer, and a gifted storyteller…..
Fred and I met while I was taking pictures at the Union Square Greenmarket. As I was passing by his booth, the Fifth Floor Farm Kitchen, he saw my camera, waved me over and said, “I have something for you.”
At first I thought he mistook me for someone else, or that he was about to offer me a sample, but after a few minutes thumbing through a folder, he pulled out a copy of an article entitled, “Preserving Old, Fading Photos” and handed it to me.
Contextually, I couldn’t figure out why a farmer at a green market would hand out copies of a photo preservation editorial. There was a disconnect. Shouldn’t it have been some kind of recipe?
“Thank you, but why do you have this?” I asked.
“Because I’m a photographer.” He replied while wrapping a rice and nut roll for a customer, I later realized he’d written the article. Duh..
We immediately glided into conversation and he elaborated on his piece, “Did you know that wooden frames give off fumes that age photos?” I admitted that I had no clue, I always thought it was the light, the heat or the paper that inevitably yellowed an image, and my mind flashed to my apartment where a stack of wooden frames lay on my floor. I folded the paper he’d given me and made a mental note to read it when I got home.
He asked me if I knew W. Eugene Smith, an early 20th century LIFE magazine photojournalist he admired, but with whom I was unfamiliar. “Every photographer knows W. Eugene Smith!” he teased.
He turned to a guy with a big camera and a big lens who had coincidentally just walked up, “Do you know of W. Eugene Smith?” The man was more interested in his baked goods and dismissively said, “Yes,” and then walked off while handing Fred a $5 bill. Fred looked at me and said, “See!…You should check him out.”
For a split-second I felt a pang of insecurity, maybe I wasn’t really a photographer. Hours later I googled Mr. Smith’s work and, yep, it’s awesome.
When Fred had too many customers for us to chat, we agreed to meet a few hours later to continue our discussion over lunch.
At noon I picked him up at his booth and we walked to the Old Town Bar near the Square East 18th Street. Awesome place by the way that harkens back to the late 1800s—long, massive wooden bar, huge mirrors, tin ceilings – you get my drift.
Apparently Fred is a regular at the Old Town Bar because when we walked through the doors it might as well have been Cheers— everybody knew his name. He ordered a glass of Guinness and chicken fingers which he topped with fresh horseradish and mustard and ate like a slice of pizza. I went with the chicken fingers too (sans the horseradish) and opted for an Amstel Light.
After a few pleasantries with the waitress, Fred began with his life story.
He talked about his youth in Youngstown, OH, and the steel mill he’d do anything to avoid including joining the army, which he did in 1955. He’d never been out of Ohio before, but suddenly he was stationed in Germany and he loved it—it was new and different and best of all it wasn’t Youngstown.
After the army he returned to Youngstown and briefly worked in the mills to pay for his next great escape, this time to New York City. Here he became, as he put it, “A flunky on Wall Street,” but he hated it and jumped at the chance to work as an assistant for a commercial photographer when an unexpected opportunity presented itself. He worked with him for seven years and along the way he learned to shoot.
He talked about hitting the jazz bars as often as his money allowed and taking saxophone lessons with Lee Konitz.
In the early days he lived in a $30 per month apartment on the Lower East Side, and then later in a loft he shared with a friend that was so cold the toilet water froze.
He briefly mentioned his first wife—she was a bit loopy and he divorced her in Mexico—but spoke at length about his second wife Faye, who he’s been with since 1972. “She’s Chinese and quite a bit younger than me,” he said with a grin.
He reminisced about backpacking around the world, “Real budget travel” he pointed out. It was a life changing experience for the couple and inadvertently set them on the path to becoming farmers, bakers and at one point innkeepers, “After our travels neither of us could imagine working in an office again.”
When 2pm rolled around, it was time for Fred to return to the market. We’d only scratched the surface his life, like a line drawing in his image, there was no time to fill in all the color. I kept thinking to myself, this morning I had no idea this man existed and now here we are having a beer.
Life is funny that way: it’s filled with unexpected gems in our path. It can go sideways too, but not on this day, this day it was all thumbs up.
The bill was paid and then I walked him back to his booth. We stood for a second facing each other not quite sure how to end the encounter. We smiled, shook hands, and said our goodbyes. I think we both knew we’d see each other again.
He walked into his booth and I went on my way, happy to have met a new friend.
You can find Fred at Union Square Greenmarket every Saturday, weather permitting. If you’re in the hood stop by and say hello.
To read more about Fred in his own words
For more Rediscovering New York.